On Books and Literary Matters (an index of sorts)

Here is a chronological list of many of the book reviews and longer pieces on literary and related subjects found on this web site, with links added in a few cases; capsule reviews of films are omitted, and this list is otherwise far from complete:

Review of A MOVEABLE FEAST (Bard Observer, September 1964)

Review of THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (Bard Observer, May 1966)

“I Missed It at the Movies: Objections to ‘Raising KANE’” (Film Comment, Spring 1972)

Review of JEAN RENOIR: THE WORLD OF HIS FILMS (Film Comment, January-February 1973)

Review of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (Village Voice, March 1973)

“Raymond Durgnat” (Film Comment, May-June 1973)

Review of Dwight Macdonald’s DISCRIMINATIONS (Village Voice, Oct. 1974)

Review of Gore Vidal’s MYRON (Village Voice, Nov. 1974)

Review of Noel Burch’s THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE (Sight and Sound, Winter 1974/75)

On Jean Renoir [book review] (Film Comment, May-June 1976)

“Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University” (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1977)

Review of Noel Burch’s TO THE DISTANT OBSERVER (American Film, July-August 1979)

Review of Graham Greene’s DR.Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (July 5, 1991). –J.R.


** (Worth seeing)

Directed by James Cameron

Written by Cameron and William Wisher

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Earl Boen, and Joe Morton.

As much a remake as a sequel, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day begins, like The Terminator (1984), with a postnuclear Los Angeles in the year 2029, a world ruled by deadly machines where a few scattered remnants of humanity struggle to survive. Then the film leaps backward in time — not to 1984, when most of The Terminator took place, but to 1997, when the Terminator materializes in virtually the same mythic fashion, crouched naked like a Greek god, before rising and setting about finding the proper attire. This time he enters a bikers’ bar, where he quickly appropriates the clothes, boots, and bike of one tough customer and the shades of another, blithely smashing the skulls of whoever happens to get in his way.

The thrill and beauty of the Terminator, both as a character and as a concept — the ultimate Schwarzenegger role, against which all his other roles must be measured — resides in the excitement of witnessing a brutal, dispassionate machine, a weapon slicing impartially through metal, flesh, or bone en route to its unambiguous goal.… Read more »

Hope Springs Eternal [The Best Films of 1999]

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 2000). — J.R.

I find critics’ near unanimity about hits and favorites a bit of a bore, even when I agree with some of their choices. Disputes are far more interesting, because they make artistic and political differences clearer and more meaningful. Perhaps because I’m drawn to cinema that can theoretically change the world — and me — I can’t see much purpose in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater. The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and an evening of channel surfing, no matter how enjoyable either might be, are of roughly equal irrelevance.

Nineteen ninety-nine was a pivotal year in movies, clarifying where a lot of people stood and who they were. This kind of definition was encouraged by the existential stocktaking that came with the end of the millennium — the compiling of more best-film lists than usual (of the 90s, of the century) and more generalized meditating on the state of the art and the medium. (After finishing my own best-of-the-90s list for the last issue of the year, I discovered that all but one of the movies had an interesting trait in common: they hadn’t been reviewed in the New Yorker.… Read more »

Angels with Dirty Faces (review of Robert Sklar’s CITY BOYS)

 Published in New York Newsday (Sunday, May 31, 1992). -– J.R.


CITY BOYS: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, by Robert Sklar. Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $27.50.



Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this comparative study of the Hollywood careers of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield is that it lacks the deference to the film industry that one has come to expect nowadays from movie books, journalistic as well as academic. Eschewing the puffery of popular star biographies and the equally dubious (and self-serving) idealism of such academic buzz terms as “the classical Hollywood cinema” and “the genius of the system,” Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University, writes with the vernacular ease of a journalist without sacrificing the analytical rigor one expects from a prestigious university press. While he hasn’t always spread his net as widely as one might hope, he still offers a plausible portrait of three city boys and how they grew -– or didn’t.  

A social historian at heart, Sklar is basically interested in charting the diverse forces that molded and altered the screen images of Cagney, Bogart and Garfield. Their overlapping careers offer many instructive parallels: New York origins, theatrical training, evolving hard-boiled screen personalities, leftist sympathies, artistic and economic exploitation by the studios, struggles for independence (including the formation of their own production companies) with mixed results and elaborate enforced recantations of former political allegiances during the Hollywood witch hunts.… Read more »

RED PSALM (1971)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A recent documentary about communist musicals called East Side Story (Dana Ranga, 1997) assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill-equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklós Jancsó’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature. That is to say, within its own specially and exuberantly defined idioms, it swings as well as wails.

Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback to quell the uprising, Red Psalm is composed of only 26 shots. (With a running time of 84 minutes, this adds up to an average of three minutes per shot. Jancsó’s earlier feature from 1969, Winter Sirocco, is said to consist of only 13 shots.) Each long take is an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies that constantly traverse, join, and/or divide the separate groups.… Read more »

Rotterdam: Jancsó, Potter, Ruiz [1984]

From the Spring 1984 issue of Sight and Sound. This was the first time I attended the film festival in Rotterdam and the first time I encountered the work of Raul Ruiz. It’s sadly emblematic that the Jancsó TV miniseries, even though it wound up being shown on the BBC, is so forgotten and out of reach today that I can’t even find a satisfactory still for it on the Internet. — J.R.

It’s a curious festival that can make young filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, Nicolas Roeg and John Sayles seem like commercial Hollywood directors. Devoted to the relatively unseeable and intractable independents across the globe whose work exists between the parentheses of an industry, Rotterdam has lasted for thirteen years, and under Hubert Bals’ inspired direction has this year added a market to amplify its already hefty fare. For an American who can hardly keep up with a Ruiz, Duras, Garrel or Jancsó without crossing the Atlantic, it was like stumbling into a forbidden forest of plenty, loaded with potential traps and unexpected rewards.… Read more »

Identity Politics

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth

*** (A must see)

Directed by Vicente Ferraz

The Journey: Portrait of Vera Chytilova

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Jasmina Blazevic

Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes

*** (A must see)

Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth is a 2004 Brazilian documentary about the making of the legendary 1964 Russian-Cuban production I Am Cuba, a preposterous, beautiful, mannerist epic of Marxist agitprop celebrating the Cuban revolution. Early on the documentary — which, like the other two films reviewed here, is showing this week at the Chicago International Documentary Festival — focuses on one of the key sequences in the original film. The coffin of a radical student slain by Batista’s police during a mass uprising is carried by his comrades through downtown Havana, surrounded by a crowd that swells to Cecil B. De Mille proportions. In a delirious, breathtaking two-and-a-half-minute shot, the camera moves ahead of a young woman and past a young man — catching him in close-up as he turns around, hoists the front of the coffin onto his right shoulder, and walks away with the other pallbearers — then cranes up the five floors of a building, past people watching from balconies and parapets.… Read more »

Tribute to Jancsó Miklós

The great Hungarian filmmaker Jancsó Miklós  (or Miklós Jancsó, as he is known in the West) died peacefully in his sleep on January 31, 2014. Mehelli Modi, who has released excellent DVD editions of some of his films on Second Run in the U.K. (and has more recently brought out a Blu-Ray of his remarkable 1974 Electra, My Love), emailed me a couple of weeks later, asking, on behalf of Jancsó’s sons Nyika and David, if I could write something to be read at his memorial service on February 22. Here is what I sent back. — J.R. 


It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that I regard Jancsó Miklós as one of the great lost continents of world cinema, especially outside Hungary — and largely, I suspect, because Hungarian history, which forms a major part of his oeuvre, is another lost continent from the vantage point of the West.  With the possible exception of Sergei Eisenstein, I suspect that Jancsó remains the supreme example of a film artist who views history as a multilayered and passionate form of pageantry, something to be sung and danced, by the camera as well as by the actors, and, speaking more figuratively, by the audience.… Read more »

Among the Missing (Malraux’s ESPOIR versus Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS)

It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score — started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945 — is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.

I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored.… Read more »

Ten Sub-Categories of Dark Reflection in 4.56.20

Written for a Portuguese exhibition catalogue in Fall 2016. My affectionate thanks to Nicole Brenez for both landing me this assignment and correcting a few of my imprecisions.– J.R.

Image may contain: 1 person

1. On a film by Jean-Luc Godard

I’ll never forget the very strange sort of non-reception that appeared to greet the challenge of Jean-Luc Godard’s Numéro Deux when it first appeared in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The first time I saw the film, in the mid-1970s, soon after its unexpectedly wide commercial opening in Paris—a release apparently prompted by the misleading claim that it was a “remake” of A bout de souffle (premised on the fact that it had the same producer, Georges de Beauregard, as well as the same budget, without allowing for any inflation), plus the fact that it was being distributed by Gaumont–was at a large cinema just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, where I was startled to find myself the only person inside the auditorium. Communing all alone with that big screen containing many smaller screens was a singular experience in more ways than one.


When Numéro Deux was subsequently shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the key annual event of Marxist film theorists in the United Kingdom, many of the intellectuals associated with Screen magazine who had previously treated Le gai savoir and Vent d’est as exemplary manifestos for a political “counter-cinema”, quoting from its various speeches as if they were all graspable and teachable recipes for a revolutionary practice, abruptly dismissed Numéro Deux for its alleged “sexism” and “mystifications” (if they bothered to discuss it at all).… Read more »

Well-Done Debut (PARENTS) & Sex and the Single Codger (THE LAST GOOD TIME)

Here, for a change, is a double header — reviews of two films I’m especially fond of, both by Bob Balaban, made and reviewed about six years apart, Parents and The Last Good Time.

From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1989). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bob Balaban

Written by Christopher Hawthorne

With Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky, Sandy Dennis, Juno Mills-Cockell, Kathryn Grody, Deborah Rush, and Graham Jarvis.

Having already opened and speedily closed in both Los Angeles and New York, Parents arrives in Chicago under a bit of a cloud. Brilliant but uneven, this ambitious feature doesn’t have a script that’s worthy of its high-powered direction, doesn’t build as dramatically as it might have, and clearly bites off more than it can chew. But it is still the most interesting and exciting directorial debut that I have encountered in some time  – a “failure” that makes most recent successes seem like cold mush. Choosing a movie to take with me to a desert island, I would opt without a second’s hesitation for Parents over such relatively predictable Oscar-mongering exercises as Rain Man, The Accidental Tourist, or Dangerous Liaisons, because it’s a movie that kept me fascinated, guessing, and curious — even when it irritated me.… Read more »

Orson Welles in the 21st Century

 Published in the Spanish newspaper El mundo as “El maverick impredecible” on May 1, 2015. — J.R.

Having some historical perspective on changing fashions in film taste is never easy, but it becomes necessary if one is to understand the fluctuating meanings of the career of Orson Welles. Just as one needs to recall a time in the early 20th century when the crime serials of Louis Feuillade such as Fantomas and Les Vampires were regarded with utter scorn by sophisticated cinephiles, and a time in the mid-20th  century when Alfred Hitchcock was still considered an entertainer but not an artist, we have to consider that during the half-century constituting the career of Orson Welles, his audience swerved repeatedly back and forth between regarding him as a mainstream star and viewing him as an esoteric artist. Although the tendency to see him as a maverick has been constant, the issue of where he belongs as a maverick has never been entirely resolved.


Even before Citizen Kane, when at age 23 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine (1938) for his work in theater and as a radio actor, and shortly before he began a weekly radio series of his own, he already had the profile of a boy genius full of imagination and mischief, a reputation that was only enhanced about half a year later when he fooled part of his radio audience into believing, through an unorthodox adaptation of H.G.… Read more »

Orson Welles, Volume 2: Hello Americans

From Cineaste (Fall 2006). — J.R.

Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans

by Simon Callow. New York: Viking Adult, 2006. 528 pp., illus. Hardcover: $32.95.

“It seems to me there is a plain, if many-layered, truth to be told,” Simon Callow writes in his Preface to the second volume of his Welles biography — noting his impatience with academics whose sense of the truth is so far from plain that they can only countenance the term between quotation marks. It’s an understandable position for him to take, but he doesn’t always stick to it himself, and it’s hard to see how he could. In his second chapter, he asserts that, although no evidence supports Welles’s claim that Booth Tarkington had been his father’s best friend, it doesn’t matter at all “one way or the other; what is significant is that Welles believed it to be true, and wanted it to be true, and his conception of [Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons] is certainly an idealized version of his father.” In other words, Callow is privileging one kind of truth over another — like all of us who write about Welles, including those pesky academics. Like it or not, it comes with the territory.… Read more »

Interview with Matthew Asprey Gear

 Published in Contrappasso, coedited by Matthew Asprey Gear and Noel King, in 2015. — J.R.




Matthew Asprey Gear

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM is one of the most respected film critics in the United States. His many books include Moving Places: A Life in the Movies (1980/1995), Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), Movies as Politics (1997), Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films You See (2000), Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004), and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010).

Rosenbaum has also been a lifelong champion of Orson Welles. Many of his writings on Welles are collected in Discovering Orson Welles (2007). He also edited and annotated This Is Orson Welles (1992/1998), an assembly of the legendary Peter Bogdanovich-Orson Welles interviews.

This brief conversation for Contrappasso, an update on Rosenbaum’s recent activities, was conducted by email in early 2015.


ASPREY GEAR: Jonathan, you retired from your position as film critic at the Chicago Reader in 2008. You now teach, write as a freelancer, and republish your voluminous archive at www.jonathanrosenbaum.net. How have your priorities changed since 2008?

ROSENBAUM: I’m no longer a regular reviewer, and therefore I no longer have to keep up with current releases and see films that I don’t want to see (the majority of what I was seeing at the Reader).… Read more »

A Page of Madness

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). It was great to see this amazing, radical masterpiece on TCM last night, even if Ben Mankiewicz consistently mispronounced the director’s name and gave almost completely erroneous information about it. — J.R.




Teinosuke Kinugasa’s mind-boggling silent masterpiece of 1926 was thought to have been lost for 40 years until the director discovered a print in his garden shed. A seaman hires on as a janitor at an insane asylum to free his wife, who’s become an inmate after attempting to kill herself and her baby. The film’s expressionist style is all the more surprising because Japan had no such tradition to speak of; Kinugasa hadn’t even seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when he made this. Yet the rhythmic pulsation of graphic, semiabstract depictions of madness makes the film both startling and mesmerizing. I can’t vouch for the live musical accompaniment by Pillow, an unorthodox quartet that’s reportedly quite percussive, but its instrumentation — clarinet, dry ice, tubes, electric guitar, accordion, contrabass, cello — sounds appropriate. 75 min. Presented by Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers. Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan, Friday, February 1, 8:00, 773-293-1447.


a-page-of-madnessRead more »